On Sunday, the Cambrian’s Easter conference saw three papers before the conference closed.
Bob Silvester:‘The Brute family and other country masons in 18th century Brecknock’.
Summarising many years of surveying church memorials – c. 900 memorials in total – in mid-Wales, Bob reveals the broader context in which the vivid and flambuoyant ‘Brutes’ created their memorial tradition during the eighteenth century. Looking systematically at so many churches on a regional scale, Bob has been able to explore the chronological and spatial evolution of the Brutes’ memorials alongside other competitors.
This talk was rich in detail and contained many points that deserve detailed consideration in approaching post-medieval memorials elsewhere, including the value of thinking about why memorials were signed by sculptors. Bob was of the opinion that the memorials were only signed where they could advertise the skills of the sculptor to new audiences: in churches close to their centre of work, or on memorials in ‘cul-de-sac’ locations, few are signed.
Another point well-made is that the sample suggests that the Brutes, and other leading sculptors, were not simply producing intramural monuments; there are examples where their graveyard memorials also survive. Furthermore, colour has survived adhering to both intra- and extramural memorials.
In social terms, these memorials are also important. None were for the aristocrats of the area and the knightly class. Instead, many were for squires and gentlemen. There were even examples memorialising yeoman farmers and artisans and their relatives. Bob cited examples of a blacksmith, carpenter, a cordwiner, a midwife, a weaver, a daughter of an innholder and a daughter of a shoemaker among his sample of memorials spanning the era from 1766 to 1820.
For the Brutes themselves, there were three generations of sculptors and plotting their distribution allowed Bob to show the increasingly restricted zone of their work in the face of stiff competition: with each generation the geographical distance for their work decreased from 20 miles, to 10 miles to 9 miles from their workshop in Llanbedr.
Bob’s talk was also interesting in revealing the consistent failings of some sculptures, such as Aaron Brute’s spelling errors and inability to set out text. In further instances, the attentiont decoration gave no room for the deceased’s name! In one further case, the sculpture Giles Duke put so much effort in advertising his work, that his name in capitals out-sizes the name of the memorial subject: the name of the three-year-old daughter of one M. Williams of Sharpal. I find it hard to believe that nothing more than ‘words were said’ about this to the mason, because a subsequent memorial commissioned by Williams from Duke omits the mason’s name completely!
Me on the Pillar of Eliseg
Next came me, talking about the Pillar of Eliseg. You can read about that here. All I would add is that I got a generous introduction by Sian Rees and some serious, important and challenging questions from the audience regarding our work on Project Eliseg.
Richard Haslam – ‘Renaissance tomb sculpture – an introduction to the Myddleton monuments at Chirk’
Finally, last but not least was the superb Richard Haslam who outlined eloquently the wider context within which local Welsh aristocrats, like those that were his focus – the Myddletons of Chirk – experienced and engaged with the Italianate tomb designs that arose from the Renaissance. As well as sculptors visiting, living and working in Italy and other European destinations, London was itself a focus of inspiration for the regions. The use of Latin was argued to be not simply exclusive, but a useful lingua Franca in memorial expression.
The expressive language of the human figure was another focus of Richard’s talk, using the memorials in St Mary’s Chirk as a focus. The striking depicting of standing and reposed figures, staring out at the audience, created a form of memorial theatre within church space, demanding attention and engagement, and overtly secular themes within the chancel of the religious space.
Richard focused on the pairing of memorials conceived together at Chirk, both sharing baroque allusion of curtains drawn aside to reveal the images and text, including the emotive depiction of a young lady suckling her infant.
Sadly, I missed some of the conference: I neither saw Rhianydd Biebrach’s talk on ‘ Effigies of Bishops in south Wales ‘ nor Andrew Richardson’s talk on ‘The Architecture of Commemoration’ focusing on Anglesey in the 14th century. I also missed the opportunity to go around Llangollen church and St Mary’s Chirk with the Cambrians.
Still, I must say I was thoroughly delighted and honoured to have been invited by the organisers to attend, serve as a guide when visiting the Pillar of Eliseg, and have the opportunity to present on that topic. I want to conclude these reports on the Cambrian’s Easter Conference by thanking the organisers and honouring the great Lawrence Butler who envisioned the 2014 conference to focus on church monuments.
I have now decided, inspired by the great talks, fine company and tasty food, to join the Cambrian Archaeological Association. Yes, I am now a Cambrian!